CHARLESTON, W.Va. (BP)–A prominent Southern Baptist leader in West Virginia says he is “outraged” that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church picketed a state mine following a well-publicized tragedy and he wants to get the word out that the congregation is not Southern Baptist.
Terry L. Harper, executive director of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, released the statement several days after Westboro, a Topeka, Kan., independent church headed by Fred Phelps, picketed the Upper Big Branch mine. The church said the 29 deaths in the mine explosion were God’s punishment for mine officials supposedly opposing a previously scheduled Westboro protest in West Virginia.
Westboro is not affiliated with any Baptist or religious group. Westboro has protested the Southern Baptist Convention at least twice — once at an annual meeting and another time at the SBC building in Nashville.
Most of Phelps’ protests focus on his belief that all U.S. tragedies — from Sept. 11 to the death of military soldiers — are the result of God’s punishment on America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Harper called the demonstrations “un-Christ-like.”
“We feel that it is important to say that these demonstrators ARE NOT Southern Baptist and they have no connection with the Southern Baptist Convention or the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists in any way,” Harper said. “We further question that they are in fact Baptist. Our hearts continue to grieve the loss of the 29 miners and we extend our deepest sympathy to their families. We believe that it is unthinkable that Phelps and his cohorts would seek to capitalize upon the grief of these wonderful West Virginians in the time of their tragic loss.”
Harper added, “Far too often committed Christians have stood by and allowed such actions to go on uncontested. We are tired of it and outraged at the behavior of the folks from the Westboro congregation. To have the gall to picket the funerals of hard-working miners in West Virginia or the ceremonies honoring dedicated soldiers who gave their lives in service to this country is completely despicable. We denounce their message of hate and the tactics used to convey this message.”
Southern Baptist leaders have repeatedly denounced Westboro and Phelps. Earlier in April, Roger S. Oldham, vice president for convention relations for the SBC Executive Committee, said Westboro “distorts the message of the cross and reflects poorly on Christians in general and Baptists in particular.”
“Our thoughts and prayers,” Harper said, “are with the families of those killed and injured in the mine disaster here in West Virginia. Our convention was blessed to have teams at the mine to assist with counseling during the incident and we stand ready to offer any assistance we can provide in the aftermath. Jesus said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).”